With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.
My most comprehensive history course took place in my first year of high school. It bore the title “Global Studies,” a cursory naming attempt to broaden “world” and liven up “history.” We started between the Tigris and the Euphrates circa 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE we had arrived in Egypt. It was our first and last visit to Africa during the entire year. We traveled to the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome, to the East towards China, Japan, and India, back to Europe for the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance, and then outward into the world for the Age of Exploration and subsequent colonization. During this period, in fact, we returned to Africa. But briefly, very briefly; not to visit civilizations but to collect living raw materials—black slaves—to build civilizations across the ocean.
This is both an indictment of my high school history department and a premature attempt at self-excuse for the following failure: before opening Half of a Yellow Sun, the Biafran War did not exist for me. I did not know that in the 1960s, Nigeria suffered a series of military coups which led to the persecution of the Igbo people in the country and their subsequent secession into the state of Biafra. Thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now I know. A little more at least.
She begins the story in the early 1960s, a period of slight unrest, to be sure, but relatively tranquil. During this time, she introduces the main players who originate from various social classes. There’s the houseboy Ugwu, an uneducated rural villager, and his masters, two middle class professors. Then there’s a wealthy Nigerian businesswoman and her white British partner. Their stories all eventually overlap, but it’s a brilliant mélange to use as a base. Because once the war starts brewing, Adichie is able to show how it cuts across social categories. War, for Adichie, is omnipotent.
The strength of her characters is where she succeeds. Journalists are often maligned for focusing on “human interest stories” in the shadow of a great conflict. But as a lover of literature, I become more and more convinced that the only way to understand great conflicts and to appreciate their causes and consequences is to meet the people behind them. Perhaps it’s a foible, but I struggle to care about something until I can see its face. In Half of a Yellow Sun, I saw a lot of faces. Faces of people who I would never have the occasion to meet otherwise.
Adichie is just a great humanist author. It’s special but ultimately not terribly important that she’s talking about Nigeria, a subject of which very few have a deep familiarity. Her work would shine in any era, in any context. She has a way of shining light on people that reflect this light outward until it becomes compassion and empathy and understanding and appreciation. Under her careful hand, the Biafran War is not a mere photograph of children with twigs for arms and balloons for stomachs; it’s the story of people who told their story, but no one listened, and it’s the story of people who were never able to tell their own.
All in all, it’s a great story, which for me, is real history.